A lawyer has lost his three-year fight with the Water Authority over two disputed water bills of more than $650 each.
John Masters appealed a decision by the Water Authority to disconnect his water supply in 2008 at his rented L’Ambience home for non-payment of money he claimed he did not owe. One bill, received in September 2008 was for $665.55 and the other, received the following month, was for $703.58.
Chief Magistrate Margaret Ramsey Hale delivered her written decision on the case on 5 December – more than three years after Mr. Masters first disputed the bills – in favour of the Water Authority.
The first bill was issued 25 days after Mr. Masters and his family moved into the premises on 5 September, 2008, and was based on 29 days of usage from a meter reading taken on 18 September.
Mr. Masters, a senior Crown counsel, disputed the bill and contacted the Water Authority, where a staff member told him no bill had been sent out in respect of the premises in three months. Mr. Masters offered to pay the Water Authority the pro-rated sum of $221.85 to cover the period of his tenancy.
Ms Ramsey Hale said Mr. Masters’ evidence was that the Water Authority staff member he spoke to agreed to accept this amount as settlement of the bill. However, the next bill he received from the Water Authority was for $665.55 minus the pro-rated sum, along with a further amount of $703.58 for his water use between September and October.
After he protested this bill, the Water Authority and an independent testing agency overseas tested his water meter and both found it to be working properly.
On 9 March, 2009, the Water Authority disconnected Mr. Masters’ water supply for non-payment of the bill. The chief magistrate said a letter from the Authority advising his landlord of the results of the tests and of the impending water supply disconnection was not received by the landlord nor sent to Mr. Masters and that it was disputed whether or not a disconnection notice was sent to Mr. Masters.
The Water Authority reconnected the water the following day after strong protests by Mr. Masters, who filed his application to appeal the utility company’s decision to cut off his water supply the next day. On 27 March, 2009, Mr. Masters also tried to secure a court order to prevent the Water Authority from disconnecting his water supply pending the court decision, but that application was refused and the Authority cut off his water supply soon after. Mr. Masters then paid the outstanding amount under protest and the Water Authority reconnected the water supply.
Mr. Masters contended that the Water Authority was not entitled to disconnect the water because there was a bona fide dispute over whether he owed the amounts demanded in the bills.
The Water Authority countered that it had an agreement with the landlord to supply water to the premises and so his dispute over the bills was with his landlord, not with the water company. The Authority also argued that it was entitled to cut off the water supply because of non-payment of the bills and that there was no evidence to show he did not owe the money because the meter had been found to be in good working order.
Mr. Masters contended that even if the Water Authority presented evidence that the meter was working properly, that was not proof that the reading was accurate.
Under the Water Authority Law, the water company has the right, within 30 days of non-payment of a bill, to cut off a customer’s water supply until the bill is paid and, unless it is proven that a meter is defective, meter readings are proof of the quantities of water supplied.
Ms Ramsey Hale said she had decided to treat the matter before the court as a “claim for refund of monies paid under protest”.
She ruled that Mr. Masters should have taken the matter of the disputed September bill up with his landlord and dismissed the claim for a refund for that bill in excess of the pro-rated $221.85. She also dismissed his claim for a refund on the October bill, saying the evidence to show that bill amount was inflated was not persuasive, as Mr. Masters relied on evidence of bills he received after the dispute arose and after the meter was changed.
She acknowledged that the amount of water used seemed “unusually high for a family of four”, but said there was no evidence to show the kind of usage – filling of swimming pools, for example – normally associated with the volume of water for which Mr. Masters was billed nor the average usage of small households and there was also no direct evidence of the family’s actual water usage.
The chief magistrate said the matter had been of some public interest and made no order as to costs.
No right to water
Mr. Masters said he was saddened by the decision, which he said showed that Caymanian and expat tenants in Cayman had no right to water under Caymanian law and that all disputes with the Water Authority had to be handled via landlords, regardless of whether or not they lived in Cayman.
“The way the system is structured is that the Water Authority supplies the water to the landlord and it is up to the landlord to decide whether or not to fight the issue. If the bill is not paid, the landlord still has water at his home – it is the tenant that must cough up or be without water,” said Mr. Masters.
He said the current system was unworkable and needed to be changed. “In other countries, utilities are not to be cut off without a court order, which is a quick process for those cases where there is not a bona fide dispute.”
In her ruling, Ms Ramsey Hale stated that the law which grants the Water Authority the right to cut off water for non-payment of bills was a “sound policy” because to require the utility company to institute legal proceedings for every unpaid bill would be “impracticable, requiring a number of costly actions against many consumers for very small amounts”.
This case took more than three years to be settled, mostly due to availability of counsel.
Mr. Masters said that if, every time someone challenges a bill, they will need to pay it anyway and then commence an action in the Summary Court “that runs for five days over a three-year period, the system needs to be revisited”.
He said he felt the government should undertake independent tests to establish whether pressurised air can affect the reading of meters. “For impartiality reasons, this should not be left to the Water Authority to carry out. The time for reform is now, otherwise, you must pay the bills, no matter the outrages, stop complaining and live with it. Members of parliament, this is a relatively simple matter to correct and your people will be truly grateful.”
Mr. Masters thanked the people of Cayman for their support. “I am truly sorry that I could not deliver you a better outcome,” he said.